Wichita State ended its longest road drought in 18 years with a 65-49 victory at East Carolina on Wednesday, claiming its first road win of the season.
“That was the best we’ve played all year on the road,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “With our road record, we couldn’t take anything for granted. We knew we would have to play well and we did.”
Here are the three main reasons why WSU extended its winning streak to three games and improved to 11-11 overall and 4-6 in American Athletic Conference play.
1. The defense of Dexter Dennis
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Any game plan for East Carolina begins with how to defend Jayden Gardner, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound freshman who entered Wednesday averaging 18.3 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Gardner is an explosive athlete, so if you put a traditional center on him, he will have the edge in quickness; put a smaller player on him and he will have the strength advantage in the post. Regardless of the type of defender, Gardner has been a foul-generating machine this season. Through 21 games, Gardner had shot the second-most free throws in the country and was drawing nearly eight fouls per game.
Faced with this dilemma, WSU decided to start the game with its pair of massive centers, Jaime Echenique and Asbjorn Midtgaard. But Gardner’s quickness trumped their size and length. It was clear WSU would have to alter its game plan six minutes into the game when Gardner received a pass in his preferred spot — on the right block facing the basket — and blew by Midtgaard off the dribble, finished over him and drew the foul for a three-point play.
“He’s such a competitor and the thing he does best is compete,” Marshall said. “He’s a tremendous ball-getter and pursuer of the basketball.”
Marshall gambled with an in-game adjustment to switch foul-prone wing Dexter Dennis onto Gardner, but the confidence in Dennis to handle ECU’s star elicited 30 minutes of the best defense the freshman has played this season.
Dennis has struggled with fouls this season because he has a bad habit of relying on his hands instead of moving his feet. But on Wednesday, Dennis did his best work out of the spotlight when Gardner didn’t have the ball and was attempting to post him up.
Dennis was dialed into his assignment, so he didn’t lag behind and grab Gardner out of habit. He stayed attached to Gardner, often beating him to his preferred destination (the right block) and denying the entry pass. After switching onto him, Dennis limited Gardner to one basket and one rebound in the final 12 minutes of the first half.
“I didn’t get a foul in the first 10 seconds,” Dennis said, smiling. “This is a step forward and it means a. lot. I know I can (defend without fouling) now, so there’s no more excuse.”
When Gardner did catch inside the arc, WSU wasn’t shy about sending a help defender to double-team him and encourage a pass out. The strategy effectively took away ECU’s No. 1 option (Gardner finished with 11 points and five rebounds on just four shot attempts) and the rest of the Pirates struggled through 31-percent shooting.
“Every time I caught the ball, they would just double deep choke and force me to kick the ball out,” Gardner said. “I guess it worked, but we just got to keep adjusting to that and keep playing the game.”
“We were able to push back and keep him from getting to that spot,” Marshall said. “He didn’t dominate with tenacity on the offensive glass. He had five rebounds, which is way below his average. That was a big key.”
Dennis added seven points, including two three-pointers, and four rebounds, including three offensive. While many of WSU’s newcomers are trending in the right direction, none gained as much confidence from the game than Dennis, who proved his defensive stopper status can extend to the post even.
“Dexter is going to be a great two-way player and he’s showing us what he can do right now,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “I’m sure he was tired of fouling, so he learned from it and showed how great of a defender he can be.”
2. Samajae the maestro
WSU senior Samajae Haynes-Jones ran a nearly flawless game out of the pick and roll for the Shockers, scoring a game-high 18 points with two assists and no turnovers.
Afterward, ECU coach Joe Dooley said “I thought Haynes-Jones controlled the whole game.”
Haynes-Jones certainly left one of his largest imprints on a game. It was a complete performance from him, meaning he struck the right balance between creating for others and hunting his own offense. He finished with two assists, but made six or seven passes worthy of assists that were not finished.
Much like WSU did for Haynes-Jones on his game-winning play against SMU, it cleared out an entire side of the court for the Wichita native and let him go to work. And Haynes-Jones made sure to capitalize on the available real estate.
After taking a ball screen from center Asbjorn Midtgaard or Jaime Echenique, Haynes-Jones would take his defenders for a loop. He would pin his defender behind him and force the help defender to follow him until he had dragged the defender far enough from the rolling big man. Twice he hit Midtgaard on passes out of the pick-and-roll, but the shots at the rim weren’t finished.
After a 1-for-9 shooting game on Saturday, Haynes-Jones showed no lack for confidence scoring on Wednesday. He made his first seven shots of the game, including both of his three-pointers and free throws.
“The law of averages was in his favor,” Marshall said. “He was taking what the defense gave him.”
“I’m a very confident player, no matter what,” Haynes-Jones said. “I feel like I do more than just score. I’m becoming more of a leader. When I’m coming off those screens, I’m looking at every option.”
On Wednesday, the right option more times than not was for Haynes-Jones to go into attack mode. He deployed his typical set of devastating hesitation moves, this time showcasing a shoulder fake that made the defender he might pull the ball back out. The first time Haynes-Jones used the move to go straight to the rim for a left-handed finish, while the second time he pulled up for a free-throw line jumper he drained.
And just when defenders thought they knew Haynes-Jones’ final destination, he would catch them leaning the wrong way. He did this midway through the first half, blowing past a defender weary of an oncoming screen and finishing for a layup. Then Haynes-Jones did it again in the second half when he took a ball screen and attacked middle with the defender shading off expecting a drive, only to be left six feet away when Haynes-Jones executed a step-back for a wide-open three he swished.
Without a McDuffie explosion (14 points on 12 shots) or anyone else scoring more than eight points, Haynes-Jones was near his best when WSU’s offense needed it.
3. The big guys do big work
Normally when a team plays a smaller lineup against WSU, it’s to try to hurt the Shockers from the perimeter. That wasn’t the case with ECU, which rotated Gardner, at 6-6, and Dimitrije Spasojevic, who is 6-8, at center with the pair combining for two three-pointers this season.
That meant WSU’s duo of Jaime Echenique (6-11) and Asbjorn Midtgaard (7-0) operated freely without having to worry about the three-point line. They went to work and finished with a combined 14 points and a season-high 21 rebounds, including a career-high 11 from Midtgaard and eight combined offensive rebounds.
“I’m still going to pick that apart,” Marshall said. “I think they could have had 25 or 27 (rebounds). There were a couple of times where the ball is there and they don’t come up with it. But they are big, so we just are trying to get them a little tougher and a little meaner when the ball is in the air.”
WSU’s offense shot a below-average 39 percent from the field, but still produced an above-average efficiency (1.08 points per possession) because it rebounded 43 percent (15 of 35) of its own misses and limited its turnovers to 10.
Echenique said he knew WSU’s centers would have the size advantage and it was up to them to make sure the Shockers capitalized.
“When other teams go with smaller lineups, they’re obviously quicker than us but we try to do our best,” Echenique said. “Then they will pay when we go to the offensive glass because we are so big, they can’t stop us on the glass.”
Like Marshall mentioned, there was still room for improvement. Both had moments of struggling to finish inside and their coach is still convinced they don’t pull in as many rebounds as they should.
But it was encouraging to see WSU’s center position once again take advantage of a smaller team to help lead the Shockers to a win.
“It’s a huge step because these last three games we’ve been playing so well,” McDuffie said. “It was only right for us with this road game to show coach how much we’ve gotten better, how much more locked in we are and how much we’re trying to turn around this season.
“We’re still working to get (the centers) more aggressive. They’ve got to realize they can dominate anyone down there. Once they believe that, we can win a lot of games.”